by Karl H. Kazaks
BURNT CHIMNEY, VA — Homestead Creamery has begun a plant expansion which will permit additional milk processing as well allow the production of yogurt and cheese. About 6,000 square feet will be added to the existing facility. That additional space will be used to expand production, to develop efficiencies for current practices — such as adding a larger bottle washer and installing a mechanized crate washer — and to permit more cold storage. The project will take about three years.
Homestead Creamery has grown significantly since its inception in 2001. A partnership between dairymen Donnie Montgomery and David Bower (as well as their family members and a few other shareholders), Homestead Creamery has already achieved its initial two goals: to utilize the milk produced by the founders’ dairies as well as to have a vibrant farm store.
At present the creamery bottles between 120,000 and 145,000 pounds of milk per week.
Last year, the Homestead Creamery Farm Market underwent a renovation, doubling in size. The store offers an abundance of local and Virginia products, including peanuts, maple syrup, apple butter, baked goods, meat, cheese, eggs, candy, and jarred goods like salsa, jams, and jellies. The store of course also offers Homestead Creamery products — milk (including chocolate, strawberry, and orange cream flavored milk), butter, buttermilk, cream, eggnog in season, lemonade, and a wide range of homemade style ice cream.
The ice cream — which the creamery bills as ‘The Way Ice Cream Should Taste,’ a modification of the slogan it uses for its glass-bottled milk, ‘The Way Milk Should Taste’ — is particularly favored for its rich, creamy taste, thanks in part due to 17 (or more) percent butterfat content.
As part of its expansion, Homestead Creamery received the first-ever grant given from the Virginia Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund. The fund, created in 2012, was part of Governor McDonnell’s plan for jobs creation and economic development. Homestead Creamery expects to hire another 20 employees once its expansion is complete, in addition to its 25 full time and 10 part time employees today.
Homestead Creamery upgraded from an in-line bottle filler to an 18-valve rotary filler prior to receiving the grant last December. “It may be oversized for us right now but will allow for future growth,” said Homestead Creamery’s President Donnie Montgomery.
The creamery has also updated its pasteurizing capacity. The capacity of the original pasteurizer was 250 gallons per hour. The upgraded pasteurizer can handle 600 gallons per hour and by adding extra plates can be increased to 1500 gallons per hour.
The plant does have new milk tanks on its production floor — three 600 gallon tanks and a 2100 gallon tank. In addition, it recently installed a 10,000 gallon silo for raw milk storage to replace the 3,000 gallon farm tank it has been using. The silo is situated on a three-foot thick concrete pad, which was designed and sited to accommodate a future large silo sometime down the road, should demand require.
When Homestead Creamery opened its doors in January of 2001, its first sales were from its original farm store (a space since integrated into the production facility). Montgomery and Bower were looking to diversify beyond selling fluid milk to the wholesale market and direct market to consumers, to help preserve the family farms for future generations. Soon they were selling to local convenience stores. By fall they were in Kroger.
One of the big decisions that Homestead Creamery made in the beginning was to use glass bottles for packaging. Glass bottles are “more expensive and harder to handle,” Montgomery said, but their advantages fit the vision for Homestead Creamery: bottles make an attractive package, are recyclable, are a great insulator to keep milk cold, and the taste is better from the glass.
At the start, Homestead Creamery was making yogurt, cheese, and dips. Before long, though, they decided to jettison those products to focus on milk, butter, and ice cream. Getting back to yogurt and cheese once the plant expansion is complete will be a welcome return to roots for Homestead Creamery. “We always wanted to get back into cheese,” said Montgomery. “We just needed space to do that.”
Today, wholesale sales to grocery stores are a significant part of Homestead Creamery’s business. Homestead Creamery products are in some 90 Kroger stores in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. They are also in a number of Whole Foods and Earth Fare stores.
In 2006, the creamery decided to start home delivery. They got off the ground in part by cold-calling on customers. Today, Homestead Creamery delivers to some 1,200 customers within about 50 miles of the creamery — mainly to Roanoke, Salem, as well as Franklin and Botetourt Counties. The delivery service not only sells creamery products and local produce and eggs but also other grocery items such as meats including beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. Also available are bread, fresh juices and bakery items from a local bakery.
“With glass bottles we felt like home delivery would be a good fit,” said Montgomery. What’s more, the home delivery service has helped drive retail sales in the markets where delivery trucks operate. “We have four billboards going around town every day,” Montgomery said.
The creamery also has two ice cream trailers which it takes to special events like holiday celebrations and employee appreciations. The trailers also help to promote the brand and provide a way for Homestead Creamery to give back to the community through special events.
Once the plant expansion is complete Montgomery hopes to utilize the delivery service as a way to facilitate distribution of local produce. At present, the creamery does not have adequate cold storage space to hold large quantities of local fruit and vegetables. Once the additional cold storage is built, however, Montgomery hopes to use the storage facility and delivery service to build a kind of food hub, getting Virginia grown produce in the hands of Virginia consumers.
Since Montgomery became president of the creamery in 2007, he doesn’t spend as much time on the farm. He still assists with chores in the morning, but then it’s off to the creamery.
“It’s a different life,” Montgomery said. “But it’s rewarding to be able to produce and offer to people something they enjoy.”
by Karl H. Kazaks